The Standard American Diet (SAD) includes lots of highly processed foods full of sugar and salt and has been shown to be very bad for long-term health. Plant-based diets, those that include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, have many health benefits that can mean lower risk of chronic diseases and a longer, healthier life. Two of the most popular plant based diets are the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. Read below to find out more about the benefits of each of these diets.
DASH Diet: What is it?
The DASH diet, or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (high blood pressure), was first developed for use in a clinical trial conducted in the mid-1990s to determine the effects of different eating patterns on blood pressure (1). This study compared a typical American diet to one higher in fruits and vegetables and another “combination” diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products and with reduced saturated and total fat (the DASH diet). The fruits and vegetables diet and the combination diet both reduced blood pressure after just two weeks, with larger decreases in the combination diet group. Decreases in blood pressure among those in the combination diet group who already had hypertension was similar to the effects of being on blood pressure medication – an amazing result!
DASH Diet General Guidelines:
- Focus on plant-based foods including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products
- Fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils
- Limiting foods that are high in saturated fat, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils such as coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils
- Limiting sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets
However, there are specific amounts of different foods recommended based on your daily calories. For an average intake of about 2000 calories per day, the following food groups are recommended:
|Food Group||Daily Servings (or as noted)||Serving Size|
|Grains and grain products||7-8||1 slice bread1 cup ready to eat cereal½ cup cooked pasta, rice, or cereal|
|Vegetables||4-5||1 cup raw leafy vegetable½ cup cooked vegetable½ cup vegetable juice|
|Fruit||4-5||1 medium fruit¼ cup dried fruit½ cup fresh, frozen or canned fruit½ cup fruit juice|
|Lowfat or fat free dairy foods||2-3||8 ounces of milk1 cup yogurt1 ½ ounces of cheese|
|Lean meats, poultry, fish||6 or fewer||1 ounce cooked lean meat, skinless poultry, or fish1 egg|
|Nuts, seeds, beans||4-5 per week||1/3 cup nuts2 tablespoons seeds2 tablespoons nut butter½ cup beans|
|Fats and oils||2-3||1 teaspoon vegetable oil1 teaspoon soft margarine1 tablespoon lowfat mayonnaise2 tablespoons light salad dressing|
|Sweets||5 or fewer per week||1 tablespoon sugar1 tablespoon jelly or jam8 ounces lemonade½ ounce jelly beans|
The DASH diet also limits sodium (salt) intake. Most Americans get more than 3400 mg/day of sodium compared to the recommended amount of less than 2300 mg/day. Limit intake of top food sources of sodium according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), listed below.
Top Sodium Sources in the US
- Breads and rolls
- Cold cuts and cured meats
- Burritos and tacos
- Savory snacks (Chips, popcorn, pretzels, snack mixes, and crackers)
- Eggs and omelets
By following a DASH diet you will naturally be lowering your sodium intake by reducing or eliminating these high sodium foods from your diet. In addition, read food labels of any pre-packaged foods you eat and aim for less than 5% of the Daily Value (DV) of sodium. You can also use less salt when preparing food (try various herbs and spices instead), and leave the salt shaker off the table.
More details on the serving sizes and quantities of foods at different calorie levels and different sodium levels are available on the website of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
Benefits of the DASH Diet
According to the CDC, nearly half of adults in the US have high blood pressure or are taking blood pressure medication. Because high blood pressure is a contributing factor to cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure can decrease risk of heart disease and stroke. The DASH diet has been proven to improve heart health by significantly lowering blood pressure (1).
The DASH diet also lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke (2, 3). In addition to its effects on blood pressure, the DASH diet has effects on other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including effects on lipid profiles (4), body weight (5), and risk of diabetes (6). High antioxidant content of the DASH diet and its positive effects on inflammation may also contribute to its overall beneficial effects on cardiovascular health (7).
Metabolic syndrome (MetS) is a combination of risk factors including central obesity, dyslipidemia, impaired glucose metabolism, elevated blood pressure (BP), and low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-c) (8). Following the DASH diet appears to reduce the risk of developing MetS (9).
Because the world population is aging, increases in dementia are expected to grow substantially in coming decades. Diet is a contributing factor to long-term cognitive health and can play an important role in prevention of dementia and its financial and emotional toll.
Adherence to a DASH diet has been found to help maintain cognitive function (10). Further research has found that combining aspects of both the Mediterranean and DASH diets has even better effects on cognition (11). The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay focuses on the foods from both the Mediterranean and DASH diets that have shown the best effects on brain health.
Because of its many potential health benefits, the DASH diet is recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) and the NHLBI as a healthy eating plan.
Mediterranean Diet: What is it?
The Mediterranean Diet is based on the traditional diets of those countries that border the Mediterranean Sea such as France, Greece, Italy and Spain. As early as the 1950s, scientists noted heart disease was not as common among people living in the Mediterranean region compared to those living in the United States. This led to thousands of research studies over the following years to try to determine why this difference existed. One part of the difference was determined to be the foods eaten in this region, which was later named the Mediterranean diet.
This diet, or eating plan, includes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats (such as olive oil). It also includes fish, poultry, eggs and dairy in moderation, and limited intake of processed foods, red meat and sweets. In comparison, a typical American diet is almost exactly the opposite, containing a large amount of highly processed foods, red meat, sweets and dairy, and very little fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. There are only specific amounts of a few foods recommended on the Mediterranean diet.
Mediterranean Diet Overview
- All meals are based on whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, herbs and spices
- Fish and seafood at least 2 times/week
- Poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderate amounts (1-2 times per week)
- Meat and sweets rarely
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Benefits of following a Mediterranean diet include a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease by 25-30% (12, 13, 14, 15). Cardiovascular disease is any disorder of the heart or blood vessels. According to the CDC, major risk factors for cardiovascular disease are high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and secondhand smoke exposure, obesity, unhealthy diet, and physical inactivity. The Mediterranean diet has a positive effect on many of these risk factors, including decreasing blood pressure (16, 17), helping with weight loss (when combined with physical activity) (18, 19), and decreasing risk of developing diabetes (20).
Mental and Cognitive Health
Decreased Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
As described above, Metabolic Syndrome (MetS) is a combination of risk factors including central obesity, dyslipidemia, impaired glucose metabolism, elevated blood pressure, and low levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-c) (8). Following a Mediterranean diet can decrease your risk of developing MetS and many of the risk factors for MetS (24).
Following a Mediterranean diet may reduce your risk of cancer (15, 25). It may also decrease your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 25% compared with a standard American diet (26). It can also help you maintain lean body mass and bone density as you age, and manage your weight – read more about that here.
The Mediterranean diet is generally easy to follow and most people can maintain it long-term (19). It is recommended by the USDA and the American Heart Association as a healthful eating pattern. If you opt to follow a Mediterranean diet, you still need to watch your portions and be physically active.
DASH Diet vs Mediterranean Diet: Summary
Both the DASH and the Mediterranean Diet help lower your risk for heart disease and other chronic diseases. In addition, both dietary patterns are approved by government health agencies and scientific organizations and based on years of research. Feel free to choose the one that best fits your lifestyle – the best diet is going to be the one that you can stick with long term!
Kate is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and certified yoga instructor with a Master’s in Public Health. She loves to share what she has learned about nutrition and yoga to help people live healthier, more balanced lives. When not working on this blog or teaching yoga, Kate is usually spending time with family and friends or reading a good book.